BWW Review: I TAKE YOUR HAND IN MINE... at Taffety Punk
Anton Chekhov wrote 16 plays in his lifetime, and one of them was not "I Take Your Hand in Mine..." But he used that tender line in many of the hundreds of letters he wrote over six years to his wife Olga Knipper.
Their correspondence - he wrote largely in Yalta; she remained an actress in Moscow, where they first met - is the basis of Carol Rocamora's play "I Take Your Hand in Mine...," currently in a brief run at Taffety Punk.
It comes to D.C. courtesy a pair of Canadians. Richard Sheridan Willis, artistic director of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Prescott, Ontario, plays the troubled Russian writer. From the beginning, as he enters wordlessly from the back of the room, one can catch his world-weary mood through his sad eyes and wan smile. He's been to Taffety Punk's stage at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop before, bringing his one-man "Strolling Player" there in 2014.
He's joined by Rena Polley, who is so steeped in subject at hand, she not only founded the Chekhov Collective, where she starred in "The Seagull" and "The Cherry Orchard," but started page to stage theatrical readings of Chekhov short stories. She also worked for 19 years with the Michael Chekhov Association, named after the actor who was nephew of the writer (and was featured in Hitchcock's "Spellbound"). And Polley co-founded Michael Chekhov Canada, and worked with the last living student of Michael Chekhov.
That would be enough to qualify her of course, but she also brings a warmth and intensity to the role of the actress smitten by the writer. Olga was also a woman torn - she wanted to be with him, but yearned to be part of any new play he'd be able to write in Yalta that she could perform with Konstantin Stanisavski's Moscow Art Theatre
Rocamora's play ekes out the poetics of their correspondence but also leaves in much of the mundane: the weather, or how one is feeling. Health is relevant - Chekhov died of tuberculosis at 44; she'd go on to live until 90. And when she passed in 1959, she had never remarried.
And they talk of art. Chekhov is furious at Stanislavsky's dramatic interpretation of "The Cherry Tree," for example. "It's a comedy!" he yells, slamming on the wall that echoes the punk rock roots of the hosting theater.
A third Canadian in the mix is director Dmitry Zhukovsky who keeps things on the stage simple with a quartet of chairs and a lamp. And as richly literary as the subject matter is, he states "we wanted to be truthful to Chekhov's poetics, where the most important and interesting things happen not in the words but between them." Zhukovsky was on hand opening night, with a bouquet to deliver to the luminous Polley
The 120-year-old correspondence between Chekhov and Knipper are certainly worthy of a romantic two-hander, and Rocamora's play moves from the characters narrating the story and setting the scene to jumping seamlessly into it, presumably quoting the character's actual words. Short of seeing a major Chekhov play, this is a good way get close to the beloved Russian playwright.
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission.
Photo credit: Richard Sheridan Willis and Rena Polley in "I Take Your Hand in Mine." Photo by Miriana Mitrovich.
"I Take Your Hand in Mine..." continues through Dec. 13 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE. Tickets available online.